I attended the Labour Representation Committee conference last Saturday. Here is my report.
The LRC, although it failed to get John McDonnell enough nominations to stand against Brown for Labour leader, was given something of a boost by the tireless campaigning that he did over many months. However, the failure to get on the ballot, together with the closing down of one of the last remnants of Party democracy (the right to put contemporary resolutions to the LP conference) has forced it to make an assessment of the balance of forces and the prospects of work in the Party.
At its recent AGM the LRC discussed its orientation and future activities. The debate on strategy centred on two resolutions; one from the Scottish Labour left Campaign for Socialism, the other from the AWL (Alliance for Workers Liberty). The logic of the latter resolution led in the direction of supporting candidates other than Labour ones in Parliamentary elections. It was overwhelmingly rejected. The CfS resolution was passed with little opposition. It said that the Labour Party had ceased to be a vehicle through which you could fight for “progressive and socialist policies”. It concluded: “We have to refound Labour as a party of radical change”. In the light of this the LRC determined to become a campaigning organisation (rather than just an internal Labour Party grouping) seeking to work with other organisations and campaigns, including ‘social movements’ outside of the LP.
Graham Bash, from Labour Briefing, in supporting the resolution from the Campaign for Socialism said that “we do not have a Party of Labour, the task is to build one”. However, the caveat was that only the Labour Party could be a vehicle for doing so. Others weren’t so sure. Owen Jones from the Youth Network declared that he did not know if the Labour Party was reclaimable.
It was ironic that the conference had a speaker from ‘Die Linke’ the left wing breakaway from the German social democratic party.
The LRC did recognise that a watershed had been reached, and it had to turn out beyond the LP. It voted to abandon the rule that only Labour Party members could be voting members of the LRC. It had previously had a category of ‘associate member’ for people outside the LP. However, this opening is limited to people who are deemed to be not members of organisations which stand candidates against Labour in elections. To join the LRC you have to tick a box saying so. This will limit the potential influx of members (the LRC has around 1,000 members I believe) since even individual activists who are not members of left wing and socialist groups will not want to sign up to a position the logic of which is that no support should be given to candidates other than Labour ones.
The position of the LRC is contradictory. Why impose a condition on individuals which is not imposed on the RMT and the FBU, both of which have supported candidates standing against Labour? I guess the answer is that these two unions would not affiliate to the LRC presented with such a condition of membership. They obviously have the weight that individuals do not.
From a tactical point of view the LRC may consider this to be a step too far which could open them up to attack by the New Labour apparatus, with the possibility of being a proscribed organisation. Yet the affiliation of the RMT and FBU provides sufficient basis for New Labour to move against the LRC. The fact that they haven’t is because they do not consider it to be a threat.
The dilemma and the limits of the LRC were posed sharply in a speech by Mark Serwotka to the conference. He mentioned the case of Bob Wareing the left Labour MP from Liverpool who has been dumped in favour of ultra-Blairite Stephen Twigg. Mark said that if he was in Liverpool he would vote for Wareing. This was reinforced when John Leach, the RMT president (the RMT is an affiliate of the LRC) pledged that the union would support Bob in his campaign. He will stand as an independent against Labour following the coup organised by the New Labour machine. Does the LRC call for support for all official Labour candidates under all circumstances? Would it call for a vote for Twigg? Will Bob Wareing put himself outside of the LRC by standing against the official Blairite?
Mark Serwotka said in his speech that:
“I haven’t come here to tell you to leave the LP – we need the Labour left to fight. But if you think that calling for people to join or rejoin the party to reclaim it is a strategy then I’m afraid we have a disagreement.”
He called for “unity around what we agree on.”
The line of divide between many activists who supported the John4leader campaign and the LRC is thus the electoral question. Support for Labour candidates as a principle would mean supporting Twigg against Wareing, a position that not many activists could swallow.
For these reasons the LRC cannot be a vehicle for regrouping the left, despite its efforts to build local LRC groups. It currently has five with another three in the process of being set up. This shows the limits of its base of support.
So the ‘outward turn’ of the LRC has its limits. Nevertheless, John McDonnell said that “we are prepared to work with anybody who is prepared to work with us”. We know John means this. However, there is an ambiguity in the LRC’s position which needs clarification. John described this change of direction of the LRC as “the united front we have needed for years”. But the LRC cannot itself be a united front. John envisages the LRC linking up with the union Broad Lefts and campaigns and ‘social movements’. It can, of course, be involved in any number of united fronts in relation to specific issues or campaigns, but not an over-arching united front which seeks to unite socialists inside and outside the Labour Party.
The fact that the two Respect conferences took place on the same day as the LRC one, and the split in the SSP, has reinforced the conviction amongst LRC members that that their strategy of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour party is right, even if the current balance of forces makes it a very long term perspective. Indeed the LRC believes that it is “the only organisation capable and with the credibility of working both within the Labour Party structures whilst being the (my emphasis) link to the wider movement and the emerging radical social movements.”
I don’t agree with this. However, the problem remains that the left in Britain is fractured and fractious, that its efforts are often dissipated rather than concentrated. We must find the means of socialists working together in collaborative ways in building resistance to the Brown government’s neo-liberal programme. The LRC is a component of this fightback, and strategic differences with it do not present an obstacle to building resistance to the government and discussing an alternative programme to New Labour’s market fundamentalism.
One question that was not discussed was union sponsorship of Labour candidates. Even if you support a position of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party, the money which is given to Labour candidates does not necessarily have to be given to them indiscriminately. The GMB, for instance has a policy of only supporting Labour candidates who support the fundamentals of union policy (at its heart opposition to privatisation). Whilst this has not been rigorously applied in the GMB as yet, those who are opposed to the government’s programme and union adaptation to it, should campaign to implement this policy by not supporting supporters of privatisation. The same principle should be fought for in all the affiliated unions. This would be a means of leverage in demanding a shift in policy (e.g. The right of councils to build council housing again). So long as Labour automatically gets our money then they will continue treating the unions with contempt.